Eagle and Gypsum residents talk tolerance
Eagle, CO Colorado
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado –Two recent crimes in western Eagle County, Colorado may have brought to light racial tension in the area.
Last month, a Gypsum man was pulling into his driveway after work when a white man confronted him, according to an Eagle County Sheriff’s Office report.
The white man allegedly told the victim to “stop playing that (racial slur) music,” pulled out a large chain and threatened to beat the Latino man.
Then earlier this month, a Latino couple was waiting in line at City Market in Eagle when a white man in line behind them verbally accosted them, an Eagle Police report said.
When the white man spotted the couple using government assistance program coupons, he harangued them about how his taxes footed the bill for their groceries. After making obscene gestures to the couple in the parking lot, the white man drove past their home and yelled racial slurs and vague threats at the couple as they unpacked their groceries, the report said.
Are these crimes isolated incidents? Or are they part of a pattern of racial discrimination against Latinos in Eagle and Gypsum?
Andy Shopnitz, a senior police officer with the Eagle Police department, said racially motivated crimes are not commonly reported in town. He is aware of just three or four incidents over the past year.
“We haven’t had too many of those since I’ve been up here although it’s hard to say what goes unreported,” he said.
Rob Lawson, a sergeant with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Department, said the crimes are among a few isolated incidents.
“There’s nothing major brewing in the area or anything like that,” he said.
When Gypsum resident Frances Barela, 50, read about the confrontation in City Market, she said found it disturbing.
“My feelings are, whether you’re Caucasian or Hispanic, any incident like that would be frightening,” she said.
However, Barela, who is Hispanic, said she has not experienced discrimination during the 24 years she has lived in Gypsum nor heard stories about it at the town of Gypsum office, where she serves as assistant manager.
“I deal with a lot of people that come in here that are Latinos, whether it is a payment or building permit,” she said. “I’ve never had a conversation with someone who was harassed or threatened.”
A number of Latinos interviewed for this story reported no problems with discrimination, but others said they encounter subtle or outright bigotry from white community members.
Robby Lopez, 16, who is Latino, said other students often called him “beaner” or “bean dip” at Eagle Valley High School in Gypsum, where he went to school before transferring earlier this year to Red Canyon High School in Eagle.
“A lot of us don’t take offense to it no more because we’re so used to it,” he said.
Lopez said white people often give him dirty looks when he is shopping in the grocery store or pumping gas, and it makes him feel uncomfortable.
Maribel Macias, a 21-year-old Latina who grew up in Gypsum, said she has not encountered racism in town.
“I don’t think I have because a lot of people think I’m actually Caucasian,” she said. “I have friends who look more Mexican who are citizens and they have gotten some looks or yells on the street.”
Macias said it seems like racist attitudes are more noticeable among residents over 55 years old. The younger generation is more accustomed to diversity, she said.
“At Eagle Valley High School, we were taught that we were all the same and we just got along with everyone,” she said.
Eagle couple Ruby Montes and Efren Castillo, both 20 and Latino, report problems with racist neighbors.
Castillo said a former neighbor used to throw a can at his car or punch it as he drove by and yell things like “You frickin’ Mexicans.”
Similarly, A 29-year-old Latino man who works as a landscaper in Eagle and spoke on condition of anonymity, said he encountered racism two years ago in a grocery store parking lot in Gypsum.
When he walked in front of a pick-up truck, the white driver starting yelling racial slurs about Mexicans, the man said.
Twenty-two-year old Eagle resident Alyssa Rodelo, who is Latina, said neither she nor her family has experienced discrimination. “It’s rare when you see that here,” she said.
However, she described encounters with subtle racism. Rodelo said on occasion white people will treat her like she doesn’t know what she is talking about, just because of her skin color.
Gypsum resident James Lewis, who is Caucasian, said he is aware of prejudiced white people in the community, though he said he is not one of them.
“I think it’s fairly widespread,” he said. “It’s pretty sad.”
Conversations with a number of Caucasian people in the community suggested that for some, a separate issue fuels resentment toward a specific group of Latinos: illegal immigration.
John Jodrie, a 55-year-old white man who lives just outside Gypsum, said he is upset about the illegal immigrants he perceives as infiltrating the community.
“I think the biggest concern is they’re taking away from the job force,” he said.
Latinos comprise a sizable and rapidly growing segment of the downvalley population.
As of 2000, the most recent census data available, Latinos comprised nearly 32 percent of the population in Gypsum, or nearly 1,600 of the town’s about 4,900 residents.
Although no solid data exists on the number of Latinos in Gypsum today, there are signs the community is growing.
“I couldn’t tell you what the percentage is, but it has definitely increased,” Barela said.
In Eagle, the 2000 census revealed that Latinos comprised nearly 14 percent of the population, or about 621 of the about 4,500 residents back then. The total population has since swelled to about 7,000, although it is unclear what percentage of those residents are now Latinos.
In both Eagle and Gypsum, white people remain the majority, and accounted for 90 percent of Eagle residents and 82 percent of Gypsum residents in 2000 (some respondents listed themselves under more than one race).
Exactly what relationship exists between the two main ethnic groups here – Caucasians and Latinos – is unclear. A handful of people interviewed on the street expressed mixed views about it.
Some people say that for the most part, the community is unmarred by racial discrimination.
“I think this town has a mix of both,” said 35-year-old Gypsum resident Jeff Sandoval, who is Latino. “I don’t see any problem.”
Others described the Latino community as somewhat removed from the rest of society.
“I think it’s pretty separate,” Montes said. “I haven’t seen any racial things but I see how they (white community members) kind of look down to us because we’re Mexicans. They put up a barrier.”
Still others are haunted by the memory of a Latina woman who was murdered at a campsite near Dotsero in 2005. Charles Gross, a 57-year-old white man, received life in prison for shooting Maria Madrid in front of her husband and son.
Those who commit racially-motivated crimes can face an ethnic intimidation charge. For verbal threats or damage to property, that charge can lead to six to 18 months in jail for the offender, Eagle County assistant district attorney Scott Turner said.
If the crime includes bodily injury, the offender can get two to six years in prison, he said.
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